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  • Writer's pictureMara Clements

How Do I Teach My Child To Be More Organized?

By Dr. Sarah Haas & Mara Clements

Mara Clements, Professional organizer in Lancaster, PA giving a class on how to teach your child to be organized at the Manheim Township Library

Mara (Pro Organizer and owner at MoreSPACE) & Dr. Haas (Child Psychologist and owner at Center for Active Minds) had the privilege to provide an educational presentation at the Manheim Township Library about how to help kids organize rooms, toys, and academic work!

In response to all the positive feedback, we have provided a synopsis of the main talking points from our presentation. We hope you enjoy it!

Question: What do I do about the stuff that my children have that I want to get rid of?

Mara: Ask them if you can take it to a donation center. When I can remind my kids that there are some children that may not have as many toys that would love to play with what they have, it makes that decision easier for them. You could also have them collect and sell their things to make money for a day activity or an experience (not more stuff). I've reminded my kids to pick up their things more than a couple times and had to clean it up myself, so I tried putting their things in a bag and storing it in the basement to see if they notice it's gone. We've also had the discussion that if I find any broken toys laying out, I will dispose of them.

Sometimes it's just a matter of our kids having a place for everything. A hamper for stuffed animals, a drawer for nicknacks, a shelf for lego creations, etc. If they have an overflowing bin of My Little Ponies, consider setting a boundary with them. Tell your kids that they can keep as many ponies as will fit in the bin, so they can pick their favorites and donate the rest.

My child will cry at the thought of losing some of his or her toys.

Dr. Haas: You know your child best, so if you think they may have some sentimental attachment to a lot of toys, then you may be right! So your two options are: A) keep all their toys to keep them from feeling sad, or B) Use this as an opportunity to teach your child firstly, how to maintain a more minimal lifestyle, and secondly, how to cope with sadness.

So rather than viewing this as a time to protect your child from sadness (which, unfortunately, we cannot do forever), use this as an opportunity to teach your child it's OK to feel sad, and the skills they can use to cope or manage that sadness.

Question: How can I maintain a de-cluttered house?

Mara: Buy new things with intention!! Stick to your shopping list, but if you do want to make an impulse buy, consider purchasing it only if you have a place in mind for that new item. Another tip is for every new thing you or your kids bring into the home, practice giving one or two things away.

Dr. Sarah: Mara talked about the importance of purchasing new things with intention! This is great advice in that she is not suggesting to never make impulsive purchases (in case this is your jam!). In this way, you can still make impulsive purchases, but only if you think about it's designated place in the house and one thing you can get rid of, if you make that purchase!

My child asks me to keep ALL of their artwork, and I swear everyday they come home with 10 more pieces of art they've created. Please help!

Mara & Dr. Sarah: If you feel that you are holding onto a lot of your child's drawings, you can absolutely ask them which of two drawings they would prefer to keep. This is aligned with Mara's suggestion of keeping things with intention and having a dedicated place for them, only filling a specific container or bin with that type of toy (here it would be artwork), and aligned with Dr. Sarah's idea to help teach you children how to cope with the potential negative feelings associated with de-cluttering.

How do I teach my child the importance of organization?

Dr. Sarah: As parents, we are very often teaching by doing, which often works well for our children for many situations. But when you are teaching organizational skills to your child, you may get more bang for your buck if you are teaching by listening. What I mean by this is an organizational system that works and makes sense for you, may not be as effective for your child. Have a conversation with your child before making organizational changes--Ask them how they want to organize their closet or their desk or their shoes! Some major benefits to this method is that this can empower your child, build their self-esteem, and teach them problem-solving skills. Even if you think from the beginning their organizational system won't work, you can always implement your child's organizational suggestions and then revisit how effective you and they think their organizational system is for them by reviewing the consequences with them. Here's a sample post-week organizational system conversation:

Parent: OK, so we tried your way of organizing your school supplies in your desk this week! How do you feel it went?

Child: Good.

Parent: Cool, let's talk about it. So one of the issues we were having before this new organizational system was that it was taking a long time to start your homework because you couldn't find your books or your pens or journals. So we tried a few new things, like placing your backpack in your chair right when you come home from school, and placing your pens in this drawer.

Child: Yup.

Parent: This week, you started your homework 10 minutes after 5PM, which is an improvement from last week! What's worked well for you? .... What hasn't worked well for you? OK, let's tweak this technique for this week to make it more helpful for you!

Unfortunately, simply telling our child that organizing their room or toys is cool or helps them finds things easier is not often an effective method for getting them to become better organizers. This is especially true if they are looking for something they need, and as parents we help them find it. Now the negative consequence of poor organization ("I can't find what I need to do something I really want to do!") is affecting parents more than the child. Here's a place where rewards (when you finish cleaning this room, then you can have some ice cream!) or natural consequences can be really helpful. For example, for a child who misplaces shoes, you can implement something like this: "You can go outside for 30 minutes starting now. But before you go outside, you need to put your shoes on." In this scenario, the child may only play outside for half of that time - 15 minutes - if they cannot find their shoes and they experience this feeling. Then you can help teach them that they can have more time outside if they are going to place their shoes in the same place every time they come in from outside.

However, this technique can go wrong if the negative consequence falls more on the parents (interrupts what the parents want or need to do) than it does the child (interrupts what the child wants or needs to do) as demonstrated in the following scenario:

Parent: "OK, we have to go out to dinner right now. Our reservation is for 10 minutes from now so we need to leave NOW or we'll lose our spot. WHERE ARE YOUR SHOES?"

In this second scenario, the negative consequence of misplaced shoes may be more heavily felt by the parent than the child, especially if the child doesn't care about going out to dinner.

To summarize, it is more beneficial to use consequences that are meaningful to your child to help them want to become more organized, instead of just telling them why being more organized will help them.

Mara & Dr. Sarah: Provide your children positive reinforcement for cleaning up! A little positive reinforcement can go a long way!

They can also learn that organization is a positive thing by having you link cleaning up with positive attention or praise! A high-five, wink, hug, smile, excited face, kiss, or a "Way to go! That looks great!" can help them understand that organizing is a good thing that they want to keep doing.

Mara: Having open communication with your child is key to teaching them the skill of organization. And we can always learn from our kids too!

What's one of the most important things we should know about organization with children?

Dr. Haas: Organization is a life skill. We wouldn't expect children to do math problems until they've learned how to add and subtract. We should think of organization skills in the same way. This means it is going to take time and effort on your part to help guide your child through the organization process. For example, instead of stating, "clean up this room", you will likely experience more success by saying, "Pick up all your stuffed animals and put them here." Provide them praise and guidance along the way when picking up their stuffed animals. Then provide another specific directive; "Great job! Now pick up all of your clothes and put them here".

Activity To Try With You Child: One thing that may be helpful for the parent is to understand how your child cleans up, so you know where you will need to provide them the most guidance and how much time it will take you to teach your child to clean a specific room. So in a room where there are lots of various objects to clean up, tell your child, "clean up this room". Now here's the tricky part: just observe your child's behavior! So keep in mind your goal here is to just understand how your child cleans a room and not to actually guide them to clean the room right now. Note things like how long your child cleans before getting distracted and starts playing with toys (this will show you how long it is before they may need some gentle redirection back to the cleaning task). Also note their cleaning strategy: Do they focus on cleaning a specific section of the room, or focus on cleaning a specific toy? This may tell you how to design clean up time that best fits their needs. Do they miss objects that may require your redirection? If so, don't be surprised when you tell them to clean their room and some objects are missed!

So my child's school work is just shoved into folders. How can I help my child be more successful with this?

Dr. Haas: It can get harder to organize when your child is taking more classes and switching rooms! Color-coding classes can be helpful (e.g., blue folder and notebook are for Language Arts; green folder and binder are for Math), then placing all of those items into one larger binder. Then, have one folder just for homework--one pocket is for homework to-do, the other is for homework to turn in. Then, at the end of each week, go through your child's backpack with them and take out all extra papers and place them somewhere at home so you have them if you need them, but you likely do not need them to continue to travel from home to school.

Parenting Hot Tip: If your child has difficulty bringing home the books they need to do homework, you may be able to talk with your child's teacher and see if they can provide you with a second set of books--one to keep at home, and one to keep at school.

I just want to take my children's toys and throw them out without them knowing. Is this OK?

Dr. Haas: You have to do what you need to do to stay sane and survive. You absolutely can do this; just keep in mind that you're not teaching your child anything by doing this (and honestly, not every single time in life is going to be a teaching moment - sometimes as parents we just need to get things done and not teach because teaching takes time and effort). So while I wouldn't necessarily do this all of the time, I can definitely empathize and understand the appeal to this approach.

If you would like a copy of the handout we provided at the workshop, you can get a copy HERE! (For Mara's other organizing worksheets, click here.)

And keep in mind that if you need additional help, Mara Clements provides professional organizing services aimed at cleaning and de-cluttering spaces at your pace, and Dr. Sarah Haas is a psychologist and provides clinical services aimed at helping children and parents of children with ADHD and/or anxiety.

Happy Cleaning!

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